The concept of ‘tiger’ mothers has caused headlines around the world. There are advocates of this super strict ‘Chinese’-style of parenting but also those who believe in a more relaxed and supportive philosophy. Frances McInnis looks at both sides of the debate. Photos by Fred Wissink Model: Kim Xuyen Quinton

These are the words of Yale law professor and self professed “Chinese mother” Amy Chua, who insisted that her young daughters practice music for hours each day. She made threats. She called them “stupid” and “garbage”. She yelled and lectured. “In retrospect, these coaching suggestions seem a bit extreme,” Chua muses in her much-talked-about memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. “On the other hand, they were highly effective.”

In the media swarm that has surrounded the book since its January release, “extreme” seems to be the most common criticism hurled at Chua’s defense of Chinese-style parenting. (Chua uses the phrase “Chinese mother” to denote a certain kind of very strict parent, but stresses that Chinese mothers can be of any ethnicity.) She has been lambasted not only for the way she speaks to her kids, but also her obsession with academic and musical achievement, the strict schedules she imposed, and her refusal to allow after-school sports, playdates or sleepovers.

Yet many of the criticisms betray a hint of defensiveness, a shadow of worry—perhaps because, as Chua says, her parenting methods were rather effective. Chua’s daughters, the eldest of whom is headed off to Harvard next month, appear to be intelligent, confident and accomplished young ladies who are poised to succeed in whatever endeavours they choose. It’s enough to set many parents wondering: Is being a tiger mother what it takes to make sure our kids can compete?

Tiger Mums in Saigon The concept of 'tiger' mums has caused headlines around the world AsiaLIFE report on Tiger Mums here in SaigonThe question is especially relevant in expatriate communities because the mix of cultures within most international schools includes both ‘tiger children’ and children with a more laid-back home life.  It’s easy to start worrying that a child who doesn’t study all evening, learn an instrument, or speak several languages will lag in comparison to others. Postings on online expat forums bear testament to this concern, with parents seeking French and Mandarin tutors for toddlers, math tutors willing to work during the summer vacation, and one even looking for “music classes for 2.5 year old”.

The tutors for toddlers may be overkill, but some of the other tiger mother practices have won supporters among psychologists and parenting experts. HCM City-based counsellor Briar Jacques says Chua’s book changed her negative view of high parental expectations. “I really liked that she looked at her children and assumed strength. That really challenged me—it makes me think maybe it would be good to push my son a little bit.  When you look at the opposite kind of mums, who assume weakness and protect their kids from everything, I don’t think that does any good to a child.”

Indeed, research shows that parents who hover protectively over their kids, slathering them with praise, and shielding them from every possible adversity (sometimes called ‘helicopter parents’) often produce offspring with low-self esteem and poor social skills. Psychologists agree that children who never struggle with difficult tasks also don’t earn the confidence that goes along with overcoming difficulties to achieve a goal.

The tiger mother, then, by setting an ambitious goal (say, getting a good mark on a test), and giving her child the tools to achieve that goal (studying together for three hours), is also setting up a situation where the child can feel proud. “Kids get self esteem from their success,” Jacques says. “You’re helping a child to achieve in their environment and that’s good on lots of levels. You’re giving them power and agency in their environment.”

Along with high expectations, rote memorisation is another classic technique of the tiger mother that might have a bad rap. Memorisation and drilling went out of vogue among educators in the 1960s, but more recent neurological research shows that repeating the same task until it becomes automatic can actually free up mental energy for higher-order thinking. For instance, it is only once a child has mastered a piece of music that he or she can think about the emotion it should evoke. Other researchers argue that memorising long texts provides valuable ‘exercise’ for different parts of the brain, such as the area responsible for fluency with symbols and eloquence.

For most, however, the strongest argument in favour of tiger parenting is the academic results. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings compare the ability of students from around the world in reading, science and math. Last year’s results included students from Shanghai for the first time and they trounced the rest of the world, coming in first in all three categories. Most education experts attributed their success to the longer hours and harder work put in by Shanghai students in comparison to their international counterparts.

That said, those results may come at a very high cost, such as the emotional fallout from being relentlessly managed by taskmaster parents. As a school psychologist for several international schools in HCM City, Daniel Hahn acknowledges that tiger kids are high-achievers. “But what is the emotional stress that these kids are going to have?” he wonders. “Some of these students are going to cram schools all day Saturday, with normal school from Monday to Friday, and homework with parents in the evenings. How much can you really do?”

Experts also say that excessive focus on exam results can detract from other educational objectives such as creative thinking. They argue that when school becomes about passing a test, kids begin to self-edit, worrying whether their ideas are ‘correct’ or the ‘right answer’, hampering imagination and creativity. Social skills and problem-solving might also be underdeveloped in situations where parents and teachers make the decisions and children are expected to obey without question. “You need to let your child make some choices, make some mistakes, while they’re young, before they get out there,” says Hahn. “If you have a ‘don’t ask questions, don’t talk back to me’ policy, you’re not letting that happen. You’re not letting your child strengthen themselves by problem-solving.”

Tiger Mums in Saigon The concept of 'tiger' mums has caused headlines around the world AsiaLIFE report on Tiger Mums here in SaigonThat constant monitoring and drilling can also result in overstressed parents and strain the parent-child relationship. “I resented my mother until very recently,” says one tiger child, now in her twenties. “She would compare me to other kids—Asian mothers are masters at that.  She’d point out another kid who won a scholarship or skipped a grade. But when I beat them, they were forgotten and it was just on to the next one.” Other tiger children report feeling like they must constantly achieve in order to receive love and approval.

So, yes, it’s clear that tiger parenting does help a child to compete—academically, at least. However, what the tiger mum can lose sight of in the whirl of studying, music classes and parent-teacher interviews, is that academics are only one part of the equation. Ensuring your child gets straight A’s is a difficult task, but the full responsibility of a parent is much more daunting: nothing less than to prepare a child mentally, emotionally and socially to take care of themselves and contribute to society. That’s an awful lot to cram into those evening study sessions.

Thoughts from…

My parents never complimented me. Even if I got straight A’s, and I was expecting a pat on the back—but it was like, “Yeah, so? You’d better get that.” I heard later from my parents’ friends that they were proud of me, so I knew that they were proud of me. But they didn’t show it.

Growing up, my dad would lecture us all the time. If we didn’t do something, he’d ask, “Why are you so stupid?” and we had to kneel at the wall. I had to sing karaoke in Vietnamese with my dad every day for an hour and he would correct my pronunciation. I had to get the tones perfect.

I’m glad that my dad pushed me to work harder because I want the style of life that my parents aspired for me. Of course, there were times when I was jealous of other kids, but their parents also didn’t spend so much time with family. I wasn’t even going to go to prom—I had never been allowed to go to school dances. For prom, I had to go with my tennis instructor, because my dad liked him since he was scared of my dad.

I would raise my children the way I was raised, but it depends on your child’s temperament. It was beneficial for me and my brother. My sister… she’s more rebellious and sensitive; she wants to understand herself and doesn’t care about making money.  It was very tough on her. The negative comments pulled her down. But it worked for me. I am a confident person, so, when he would say “Why are you stupid?” I would say, “No, I’m not.” So it depends on the kid—parents need to know their kids.